“But hope deferred is still hope.”
Grief has found its way into my community this year, a downpour of tragedy. People keep getting taken away from us. How do we continually find ourselves amidst other people’s suffering? And then their grief becomes our own, because grief is not finite, it cannot be contained within one body. If you love deeply, grief flows into you heedlessly, from friend to friend, from lover to lover, down through histories, passed between eulogies and families and hymns. You see it, you hear it, you feel it. It shakes you down. Grief has little mercy.
If our tears could water the ground, the California drought might be less severe.
But right now it is raining outside, finally, after we waited so long for water to come down. Finally the skies acquiesced and opened. Finally there is life being brought out of the ground after so much dryness, so strange an endless summer, though the rain is finicky and intermittent—it comes and goes. I was afraid our entire state was turning into a desert. Fig season ran too long, all the way into October. I, a California child, who loathes New England winters and the severity of seasonal transitions, did not want an endless summer, because the lack of change scared me.
I was once diagnosed with adjustment disorder, which means coping with major life changes can be—or at least once was—difficult for me, but I’ve spent the past several years fending off the fear of change. I have to move with change, let the waves just take me like a sea otter, and I do—I keep changing, I keep letting change happen, I keep rejoicing in change happening. Lack of change, after all, is a kind of paralysis, like stagnant water that breeds bacteria. If not paralysis, then ignorance for sure. We measure seasons by their changes—rise over run—the steeper the slope, the more intense the seasonality. In California, the change is slight. This year, only minor fluctuations. We fluctuated less than is normal or healthy. The dry and sunny days carried on, so we enjoyed them. We continued to go to the beach and to the mountains. We kept sitting on picnic blankets at Dolores Park and eating ice cream at Humphrey Slocombe. We reveled in the easiness of it all. But the farmers were struggling. Crops were dying. Growth stopped. Thirst everywhere.
Even under the pretense of an endless summer, which I suppose can make one feel immortal, invincible, and unchangeable, we cannot help ourselves. Things will change. The cilantro I tried to grow in my house died with the intense heat. So did the Thai basil, though it was spry and lively for a little while. I can only stand to talk about the death of herbs. If these fragile herbs should remind us of anything, if my black thumb should bring about any insight or wisdom, it is that everything comes to an end, and there is a limit to how long we can ignore our mortality—yes, our mortality, which feels not like an inconvenience but a robbery, a violation, not a fact. We are obsessed with fighting our mortality by removing all signs of time and aging: botox for wrinkles, plastic surgery for sagging skin. San Franciscans are a particular breed of ageless city-dwellers, foolishly basking in a hopelessly implausible sunshine of eternal youth.
I’m talking about weather and plants because it is difficult to talk about everything else. I am writing about common things in hopes that I will have some way of writing about the abstract and the tragic. But perhaps when we talk about death and suffering and pain and love we are talking about common things after all… Death is as common a thing as weather and plants, and yet…
And yet, because of death, we find ourselves in a profusion of darkness that neither weather nor dead houseplant can foretell. From endless summer we move into endless night, and it is there, in that grief, that the limit of language reveals itself. Words fall short. Their power seems insufficient, and I, whose words are the way I help myself, cannot help my grieving friends with my words. I can hardly allay their grief. I feel weak and powerless. Writing is so difficult right now. My words cannot change the course of things; I cannot turn over their grief. Though grief is right and necessary and cannot be retracted, nor should it be, grief is hard to bear, whether you are bearing it, baring it, or merely bearing witness. Grief is living in pain. Grief is a wound. But the heart will move as it moves, in its own time. Let grief be, I know that.
And I am helpless because the grief I know is only tangential. I sit at the fringes of other people’s sadnesses. I grieve around the edges, for what the people I love have lost and cannot be recovered. They are hurting so deeply, so I grieve alongside. I grieve for the seasons. I grieve the change that has to happen, that has happened, that will happen: this is grief that had to be after that first shalom was broken; the grief that will come again (its recurrence is no less disarming or painful); the grief of absence, which often feels more violating than any presence. The grief that is not proof of our weakness, but a revelation of our humanity. I grieve for our human-ness, for our humanity.
I try to grieve without fear. But fear consumes me, mostly in my sleep.
With the words I have, I eulogize the living. This is what I do best. I will continue to celebrate what I have here, I will continue to celebrate the people I love. I will continue to hold their grief inside me, and then cast their cares heavenwards. I will invite your grief into me. These words keep resounding in my ears: “So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.” Let your joy be joy and your sorrow be sorrow. Joy and sorrow do exist, together and separately. I do not think we can have one without the other; but I do think they do make one another more powerful and resonant, without inflating or diminishing. In spite of sorrow, because of joy, let us continue on, however we may.
“But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle, touching my circle on the plane of Nature. But I know this is impossible. I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace … It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death, and Heaven itself is a state where ‘the former things have passed away.’”
-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
“We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable.”
-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead